Great Lakes Shoreline Erosion Made Worse by Climate Change

A sunken hundred foot walkway

A sunken walkway in Indiana Dunes National Park was built to help people with disabilities enjoy the lakeside view. Due to erosion, visitors can no longer use it. Image:Tyler Lake/WTIU

Along the Great Lakes–America’s “Third Coastline”–rising lake levels coupled with erratic weather patterns are causing alarming levels of erosion. Each year, people’s homes, as well as utility lines, are becoming dangerously close to the lake’s edge. Stronger riptides, dangerous crashing waves, and boats ramming objects hidden below the lake surface are all growing concerns for public safety officials.

As Indiana Public Radio explained, “Erosion isn’t just affecting homeowners — it could also drive tourists away. Millions visit Indiana’s lakeshore every year. In Porter County alone, they contribute more than $350 million to the local economy annually, helping to fund everything from schools to fire departments.”

Why This Matters: What makes shoreline erosion along the Great Lakes so difficult to predict is that there are several forces that contribute to the damage. Increasingly heavy rains bring more water, warming weather causes evaporation, and extreme cold air outbursts as well as disappearing winter ice barriers on the sand all put different stresses on the shoreline making it more difficult for it to recover. It’s very much uncharted territory for the over 30 million people living within the Great Lakes basin. 

A Growing Concern: Scientific American wrote last year that as recently as 2013, water levels on most of the Great Lakes were very low.

  • At that time some experts proposed that climate change, along with other human actions such as channel dredging and water diversions, would cause water levels to continue to decline.
  • This scenario spurred serious concern. People living in the Great Lakes basin depend directly on the lakes for drinking water, industrial use, commercial shipping and recreation.
  • But since 2014 the issue has been too much water, not too little. High water poses just as many challenges for the region, including shoreline erosion, property damage, displacement of families and delays in planting spring crops.

What the Experts Say: Last summer, Lake Michigan broke its high-water record of 33 years, topping at 582.18 feet on July 23, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. As E&E News wrote, “that’s 2.8 feet higher than the mean July lake level over the last century, and 6.2 feet higher than it was six years ago.”

Scientists like Richard Norton, a University of Michigan professor and expert on coastal zone management, are expecting the unexpected. He noted that,

“We don’t know what the long-term standing water level is going to be. We do believe variability is going to continue between low water and high water. And when the water comes up, it’s going to come with a vengeance.”

What Can Be Done: E&E News also explained that experts worry that current environmental laws are insufficient to address today’s challenges. In Michigan, state efforts to address coastal erosion date back to the 1970s and early 1990s. This year, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was urged to issue a state of emergency for Michigan’s shoreline erosion which would open the door to federal dollars from the Disaster Relief Fund, administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Her proposed 2021 budget set aside $40 million to help communities dealing with “the negative impacts of Michigan’s changing climate conditions” but many wonder if this is enough to address the breadth of the challenges Michigan faces.

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